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Can We Truly Separate Art from the Artist?

As I was strolling through Delhi University, I encountered two of my friends—intensely—debating whether we could separate art from the artist. I joined them. One friend noted that Woody Allen is a gifted director and sex offender.

In that case, she asked, would you still choose to watch Manhattan? Without giving much thought to the question, I responded Yes.

After much deliberation on this ethical dilemma, I’ve come to believe that the art-artist conundrum is as complicated as it gets.

This essay tries to address some of the impending questions around this puzzle.

Can art and the artist be separated?

The historic #MeToo movement of 2017 spotlighted the men of art and their unlicensed abuse of power. Among them were movie directors, producers, artists, and singers.

Roman Polanski is alleged to have assaulted a minor. Harvey Weinstein preyed on women–the most influential ones.

R. Kelly was videotaped having sex and urinating on a minor. Woody Allen was accused of molesting his adoptive daughter.

Pablo Picasso is alleged to have molested and hurled abuses at women all his life. The list goes on. However, all of these morally repugnant individuals have produced works that marvel at the spectators for ages. 

Polanski’s movie The Pianist is one of the most illustrious depictions of the world war and human emotions. Woody Allen’s 1977 release, Annie Hall, is an aesthetic representation of romance and comedy.

Picasso’s 1937 painting Guernica embodies the most powerful critique of war. Therefore, it isn’t easy to deal with the puzzle of if (and how) we could separate the art from the artist.

This complexity emanating from the art’s impact on the spectators’ emotions and the unjustifiable actions of the artist becomes an intrinsic ethical dilemma.

The question is: Can we separate art from its artist?

Why must the art and the artist be separated?

The art-artist conundrum has found two—conflicting—positions. Those who believe art could be separated from artists argue that art is something meaningful and needs to be embraced.

And the artist needs to be condemned or punished, not as a creator of the art, but as an individual who has committed the crime. They argue that you can be a bad guy and still create good art. So, they believe art isn’t an issue, but the artist’s actions are.

One of the most profound arguments comes from the postmodernist school of thought. For some, the artist wasn’t just separate from the art, but the artist was dead.

Roland Barthes titled his “The Death of the Author” declaration in 1967. Barthes argued that the author doesn’t create a text but the reader by reading it. Using his premise, one can say that every time spectators encounter an art, they make it new in a way that the artist no longer controls a definitive, final interpretation.

One of my colleagues at the University explains: “The art provokes certain emotions that the artist no longer is a party to them.” Therefore, supporting/appreciating art is not equivalent to encouraging/endorsing the artist’s actions.

Why the art and the artist cannot be separated?

Those who believe art cannot be separated from art argue: “Art doesn’t exist in its own altruistic, alternate universe.” It is a product of societal privileges.

As Maria Gracia, a senior editor of The ARTery, writes, “The art that we uphold as genius or indispensable from human history is also of this world — tethered to and a product of existing systems of power, like capitalism and white supremacy.”

separate art from the artist
Photo by Alice Donovan Rouse on Unsplash

To put it bluntly, sales of art directly benefit the artists. Watching Kevin Spacey directly benefits him. Reading William Goulding directly benefits him.

Buying a DVD of a Woody Allen movie now helps him. Thus, individual artists and their art are part of a collective whole defining our socio-economic transactions.

Writer Roxanne Gay, in her essay “Can I Enjoy the Art but Denounce the Artist?” argues that we should not overlook an artist’s sins and not separate the art from the artist. She writes, “We can no longer worship at the altar of creative genius while ignoring the price all too often paid for that genius.”

Jacob Kuppermann puts it this way: “By creating a culture that excuses the misdeeds of the powerful, talented or rich, we make it harder for their victims, from fellow celebrities to anonymous teenagers, to retain their dignity in society.”

It’s just too complicated to separate art from the artist!

We elicit three divergent responses to the art-artist conundrum: Yes. No. And it isn’t very easy. I propose that each of these responses emanates from two parameters. One is the individual’s proximity to the victim and the cause; two, the individual’s affinity to the artist and the art.

Suppose I like listening to an artist who is also a sex offender.

Here are my three plausible scenarios for resolving the art-artist problem:

First, if I want the music and I do not have as much proximity to the victim, I would undoubtedly choose to say, “We can separate art from the artist”.

Second, if I have propinquity towards the victim or am sympathetic to their cause, I would abandon listening to the artist altogether. In that case, one can argue that we cannot separate art from the artist.

In the third scenario, where I like the art and am sympathetic toward the victim and their cause, I am more likely to be stuck in a dilemma. “How can the artist do this?” In a situation like that, I am more likely to listen to music while feeling guilty.

Therefore, it’s complicated!

Conclusion: separating art and the artist

The answer to the art-artist conundrum is deeply personal. There is no way to produce a collective moral standard to arrive at a conclusive distinction between art and the artist. That being said, we can also not sufficiently establish that the artist is what provides value to the art.

In the art-artist conundrum, individuals hold a moral compass for themselves while arriving at an answer. And there may be no answer to this debate.

Cover Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

18 thoughts on “Can We Truly Separate Art from the Artist?”

  1. More than once, Adarsh, after enjoying a movie, I have seen Weinstein’s name on the screen, and wondered if I should have been watching it. Then it occurred to me that large numbers of people had worked together to make that movie. They didn’t deserve to suffer for crimes they didn’t commit. Watch the movie! Support the cameramen, writers, actors, makeup artists, set designers, costume designers, canteen workers, and all the rest. Weinstein is being punished for his crimes.

    1. You are absolutely right, Cherly! A movie is made by not just a director, but several technicians in the background are at their masterful work. When people say that I don’t want to watch Weinstein’s movie’s because of his problematic personality, I often think of this element. Definitely, Weinstein must be punished–and is being punished for what he has done.

  2. We often don’t know who the artist is so the art does stand separate from the artist. It does not lose its impact or its value if I don’t know who created it.

    1. You are right with this observation. Most of our observations are informed, but if we are ignorant of the ill-doing, we remain distant from the act itself. This provides a certain legitimacy for doing things, for we don’t really know if what is being watched is really a result of a repugnant personality. Thank you for reading the blog.

  3. Adarsh, this is a very interesting debate. It reminds me of my childhood misery of never being permitted to go to the movies because my parents did not approve of the lifestyles of the actors. As you say, it’s a very complicated issue. Artists, like everyone else, are imperfect. Being creative and talented does not make them moral.

    If we boycott Weinstein movies, for example, it is not just Weinstein we are punishing, but the viewing public and the thousands of people whose life’s work and resources went into making those movies. I think we should not worry too much about appreciating art. Art is a gift to humanity and is not the problem. Crimes are a separate issue. We should hold people personally accountable for their actions, no matter who they are.

    Thank you for a well-written and thoughtful post. All the best! <3

    1. This is a really interesting way of looking at this debate, Cheryl. Sometimes, art is not merely a production of a person, but a complex bundle of socio-cultural interactions that produce it. If that is so, we are barking the wrong branch. We must treat art as a gift to humanity, rather than punishing art itself. But, punish the person who is a privy to crime instead.

  4. Thank you for this exciting article. Perhaps there is another way to see the problem. In this text, we seem to address the socio-economics of the industry of Art more than the idea of Art itself.

    We can think of Art as “an artist creates, through some mystic force known only to the artist, an expression of the self through a given medium”. In this context, it is impossible to separate the Art from the artist, as we inevitably treat them as the same.

    However, it is well to remember that the “self” of the artist in question is very dependant on the environment in which the artist was brought up. Remembering this, we can approach Art as the expression of one “self” in this particular time and place in the world. This allows us to view the artist not as some genius, but rather as being the result of the infinitely complex socio-economic factors that led the artist to create the piece.

    This allows us to properly separate the individual from the Art, by framing Art as the result of our societal interactions with the artist’s expression (it’s artwork). We could even argue the artist’s work never belonged to the artist in the first place.

    When an artist of great talent is found to be morally questionable, one would do well to revisit its work. Applying the idea that the artist work is the result of our society, we can address the “real” question: is the expression of this piece of art tainted by the lack of morality of the artist? Should we be concerned about the ideas vehicled through the artwork of morally questionable artist? Is the art piece, though not related in appearance to artist’s moral failings, a culprit in the propagation of this immorality? After all, it is impossible to properly distinguish immorality within an individual (immoral people don’t think they are immoral). Is it reasonable to think we can properly distinguish the immorality “out of” the artist’s work?

    I, for one, believe that art work cannot and should not stay relevant indefinitely. Times change, societies change. We need to look at Art as the fingerprint of our social consciousness. There is an infinite amount of artwork done by individuals, past, present and future. We need to be able to let go of artwork without the fear of losing Art. It would be immoral to promote immoral artist’s as geniuses and forgive them for their sins because we like their artwork so much. It would not be immoral, however, to keep the artwork as a lesson of history, to remember that our society evolves over time, and thus, it’s Art also evolves over time.

    Thank you for reading my amateur reflection on the subject.

    1. This is a really very interesting take on the subject. I, for one, think of this a quite plausible to do so. We are all the result of our socio-cultural conditions–although, we both create the conditions as well as are conditioned by it. I liked how you built your case. Thank you for reading, and taking time to comment on the essay. My best wishes 🙂

  5. I think a similar situation is when you have a friend who displays behaviour you consider un-ethical. Do you compromise your beliefs or your freindship? You can exchange the ‘freindship’ in this speculative scenario with anything beneficial as far as I’m aware; cheap chinese products, nepotism that gets you a good job, free meals at a restaurant you blackmailed.

    Because anything of benefit potentially contributes to your prosperity which in turn contributes to your survival or the security of your position in life, there’s always a balancing of personal benefits against the benefits of others. In situations where the disparity in life conditions is visibly larger it’s an easier decision to make; I have lots of clothes and this person has none, so i don’t need more clothes from them even though I could have them.

    When you make the gap smaller in overall life conditions and / or harder to see, the decision becomes an act of gambling. Information suggests the art was a product of ‘immoral practices’ but you can’t know that. You do know that the art benefits you psychologically, but you can’t know whether this benefit might be the difference between suicide and survival for yourself.

    Given that we are not omniscient we can’t ever have enough information to accurately draw the most justifiable conclusions. Ignorance is very much bliss in these situations and some people really do need bliss in their lives. I personally place weight on those who do not need bliss to consider not what they don’t know (are children working for £1 a year to produce this product) but instead what they do know (I don’t need this cheap jumper, I can go to a charity shop or repair an old one).

    As with a lot of the capitalist / consumer system, many of the consumers of questionable art / products / services have come to attribute importance to things that are not important, they’ve lost sight of what matters in life and in their doubt they consume without restraint, like an animal unsure of how long the winter will be.

    1. As a final note, this article was fantastic, a top example. The length was appropriate, the terminology was not unnecessarily convoluted, the subject was outlined well and remained relevant throughout. There were a few small luls in the tempo that I forgot to note, which was my bad, but very good stuff.

      I’ve wanted a co-host for a debate / discussion series possibly on twitch or youtube for a while, let me know if you’d be interested in that.

    1. Yess, that strongly plays a part. But, in the end, it is the spectator that gets the make a decision.

      Adding on to your comment, there are some arts that are inherently bad — Blood Diamond (movie) provides a brilliant insight into it — and consumption of such arts is outright unethical. For instance, our decisions to buy clothes that don’t have work-standards and practice slavery. Here, no matter how good the product is, it is created as a result of another’s oppression. It is one my article’s limitation as I haven’t specifically talked about it.

      But a good music might be a product of immoral artist. Yet, we tend to enjoy the music. It is here, the debate seem more interesting!

  6. > One of them pointed out that Woody Allen is a gifted director and also a sex offender.

    Except, of course, he’s not.

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